OAKLAND, Calif. — Russell Westbrook made a statement before Thursday’s Thunder-Warriors game at Oracle Arena — a loud one.
His highlighter orange official photographer vest was visible from miles away and was just the latest in the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard’s series of passive-aggressive shots at former teammate Kevin Durant, who is well known to carry photography as a hobby.
There have been cryptic social media posts and "I don’t know what you’re talking about" quips, but there was no room for subtlety this time around — this early-season matchup between Durant’s former team and current squad was the ultimate showdown: Westbrook’s chance to show that he didn’t need Durant to be successful — his chance to prove true his unspoken but often manifested belief of the duo’s time together in Oklahoma City — that he was the better player.
Westbrook could have accepted that Durant wanted to go elsewhere this summer — he could have kept the relationship good-natured, as Durant has wished to do — but there’s no room to misinterpret Westbrook’s actions since July: he wanted a rivalry.
He got one — and it’s one he can’t win.
After the game, Westbrook did everything he could to avoid saying much of anything at all:
“It’s just basketball."
“We gotta watch it, we gotta get back to the film, and kind of watch it."
“It’s one game."
“Apparently they talk a lot of trash now — we’ll see how that goes."
Though, to be fair, it’d be hard for anyone to find a worthy rebuttal to Durant’s virtuoso performance.
Westbrook made a statement before the game, and Durant made a louder one during it.
The Warriors’ big free agent signing torched his former team with 29 first-half points on 11-of-17 shooting (6-of-8 from beyond the arc) — ending with 39 in the Warriors’ 122-96 blowout win.
Oklahoma City held an early lead in the contest — punctuated by Jerami Grant’s emphatic, Westbrook-esque dunk over Durant to put OKC up 29-19 in the first quarter.
Grant, taking after his unabashed team leader, had no problem letting Durant know that he had put him on a poster — bumping into the former MVP and then staring him down.
“Yeah, that’s not a good idea,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game.
No, it wasn’t. Grant poked the bear, and he and his teammates were subsequently mauled.
Golden State, which has seven new players following its NBA record 73-win campaign, had shown only flashes of the dominance that many presumed would come instantaneously upon the Durant signing, and in many ways, Thursday night’s win was another flash.
But it was a blinding and deafening flash — the kind that should make the entire NBA pay attention.
The superteam — the villains of the NBA and the squad that was declared to be everything that’s wrong with modern professional sports — might have actualized Thursday night behind Durant’s spectacular and vicious performance.
Durant’s performance was so inspired — such a strange blend of anger and joy — it can only be presumed it emanated from a deeply personal place.
Following the Grant dunk, Durant caught fire, leading the Warriors on a 49-14 run for the rest of the first half, trading verbal barbs with the Thunder players the whole way, as the game devolved into a laugher.
And to think, these Golden State Warriors are still nowhere close to their ceiling.
The learning curve for this new Warriors roster is still steep — early this season, Golden State is running an offense that seems primitive compared to previous iterations under Steve Kerr (it’a a lot closer to Mark Jackson’s sets at the moment) and the defensive rotations are still out-of-sync, despite the team’s half-court defense showing clear improvement over the last week.
This Warriors team won’t jell for a long time — if ever – but for the vast majority of their games, that won’t be an issue. Golden State has too much offensive firepower with Durant, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson — all three can take over a game and win it for Golden State.
Those issues of cohesion and scheme only matter when the Warriors play the Spurs — who beat Golden State emphatically in the season opener — and the Cavaliers — who still pose the greatest matchup problems to Kerr’s team; which is to say that those are problems that can be worked out between now and April (or perhaps even June).
The Thunder don’t necessitate that kind of scrutiny from Golden State. Not now, and probably not for a long time.
The Thunder might have talked (and not talked, but still made their point) as if they were in that class before Thursday night, but it’s painfully apparent that they are nowhere close, and as of Thursday, the gap is growing wider.